How Jamie Lee Curtis Helped Jennifer Grey Transform Into Gwen Shamblin (Exclusive)

How Jamie Lee Curtis Helped Jennifer Grey Transform Into Gwen Shamblin (Exclusive)

Prepare to see Jennifer Gray like you’ve never seen her before. The actress, best known for her roles in Dirty dancing and Prime Videos Red OaksShe is unrecognizable in the original Lifetime film, Gwen Shamblin: Hunger for Redemption. Gray takes on the title role of Gwen Shamblin Lara, a religious leader and Christian food guru who was known for her controversial practices as much as her distinctive style and hair before she died in a tragic accident in 2021.

“The more powerful she got, the bigger her hair got. The taller the hair, the closer to God,” Gray says of Lara.

And for Gray, that transformation—particularly with the hair—was pivotal in her decision to say yes to the project. “I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do that part underneath [these] Conditions. Firstly I need big wigs because I know wigs are expensive. And I know wearing a cheap wig wouldn’t work,” she recalled of ET’s Matt Cohen.

Not only that, Gray knew she needed the best dialect coach she knew, Elizabeth Himelstein, as well as the best wig maker in the business. And that’s where Jamie Lee Curtis comes in. “I spoke to Jamie Lee Curtis and she said, ‘Well, you have to go with Rob Pickens. He is the best wig maker Halloween wigs [and] he did Ana de Armas for Blond,'” Gray says, before revealing, “when she tells me in that kind of stern voice, I do what she says, and that’s why I called him.”

Ultimately, it was important for Gray to capture “that woman’s voice in the world,” she says, referring to what Lara represented and how she rose to fame with her faith-based diet program and church.

A prominent figure in Tennessee, Lara rose to prominence after founding the Weigh Down Workshop in 1986 and founding the Remnant Fellowship Church in 1999, which became a highly successful Christian feeding program that expanded her reach across the country.

But belief in Lara’s programs wasn’t without its risks, as experts grappled with the restrictive diet plan and alleged demands that members should alienate those who didn’t follow their practices or even became overweight.

“What struck me and disturbed me so much was that she was the voice of anorexia,” says Gray. “She was the personification of the inner dialogue – I’ve never had an eating disorder, but I have so many friends who have been so badly damaged by this inner critic of perfectionism who thought there was a body shape and size and number on the scale that will redeem you, that will make you lovable to God, to other people, to yourself.”

Lara “really married shame and low self-esteem and basically said, ‘This is it. God is the answer to that,’” Gray continues. And the result, according to the actress, “grew into some very cult-like behaviors.”

Eventually, Lara’s antics and amassing millions led to dissenters accusing her of abuse and a church raid during an investigation into the death of an 8-year-old boy named Joseph Smith. (His parents, Joseph and Sonya Smith, were eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison.)

Lara’s life came to an unexpected end in May 2021 when her husband, Joe Lara’s, plane crashed shortly after takeoff, killing everyone on board, including her son-in-law and four other Church leaders. Months later, her legacy and allegations of abuse were explored in the HBO Max docuseries. The Way Down: God, Greed, and the Cult by Gwen Shamblinresulting in renewed attention around Lara and her church.

“I’m just so grateful that they gave me this opportunity,” Gray says, referring to Lifetime. “I love this job. It was so hard, it was so fast, I was just talking. It was all so intense.”

And all the hard work and attention to detail paid off. “People were like, ‘I saw you walking towards me with that wig and that accent and oh oh, here she comes,'” Gray says of being on set with a full head of hair and makeup and Lara’s looks and Personality brought back to life on screen.

While this role will surely go down in history as one of her more iconic film roles, Gray took the time to look back on the role that made her a star: as Frances “Baby” Houseman in the 1987s Dirty dancing. In 2020, she was confirmed to star in and produce a new installment in the franchise, which has spawned a sequel and a made-for-television musical remake.

But recently, Gray said she would only star in a sequel if she was “perfect.”

While speaking to ET, she expanded on that comment. “I shouldn’t have said ‘perfect’ the other day. It would have to be authentically soulful and heartfelt because the original film was just made for nothing with no aspirations to be a huge film,” she says now, explaining that the original was “so emotionally satisfying and so soothing, and it’s all about the possibility of two people meeting and changing each other’s lives and how they see themselves forever.”

For Gray, these are “some of the most important ingredients” for a sequel. And if so, then maybe “Baby will be back at the Kellerman’s, maybe you’ll call her Frances, maybe you’ll call her Baby and there’ll be dancing and there’ll be a rebirth just like she did [before]’ she offers.

Gwen Shamblin: Hunger for Redemption Premieres Saturday, February 4 at 8pm ET/PT on Lifetime.


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